A number of MLS clubs took a shot at quick improvement at the transfer deadline earlier this month. Columbus, Orlando and Houston nabbed Designated Players in an effort to make a push up the standings. Chicago, already a strong team, added depth pieces. D.C. United took an eventful step one in an effort to completely revamp the roster. Toronto FC, by far the league’s best team, stood pat.
The New England Revolution did one normal thing and one bizarre, weird, unexplainable and inexplicable thing evident of an organization without direction and a team lacking pieces that fit.
The Revs currently sit in 10th place in a competitive Eastern Conference, blocked out by hugely successful expansion side Atlanta United and the recently-surging Montreal Impact. They reside a comfortable seven points off the coveted red line, held by Montreal and straddled by seventh-place games-in-hand-holding Atlanta. OCSC and Philadelphia, mediocre in a similar way to New England, hold eighth and ninth, with little chance of advancing any higher.
Jay Heaps’ side have developed a reputation for inconsistent play since they narrowly missed out on the postseason last year on goal differential. They rarely are able to put together good runs of form, often seeing quality offensive performances negated by shaky defending, and they are notorious for their inability to hold any sort of lead.
When they took a 1-0 lead at NYCFC in week 24 into the 70th-minute, the entire MLS twitterverse held no doubts that the “Pigeons” would eventually come back and sure enough, they did with Jonathan Lewis finding himself unmarked at the back-post and scoring a late stoppage-time winner.
Defense is an issue, and has been since even before Jose Goncalves left. Andrew Farrell is an at best average right back, they have no left back with Chris Tierney aging out of the starting lineup, and center back, where they signed two players in the offseason, has been on and off. Antonio Delamea has mostly been good, but Benjamin Angoua was, frankly, a disaster of a signing, and holds the title of the winter transfer window’s second-worst acquisition behind only Minnesota catastrophe Vadim Demidov.
They’ve allowed 40 goals in 24 games, and although that’s actually not that bad compared to other teams (fourth-place Portland has given up 43 and eighth-place RSL 47), those goals have a tendency to come at bad moments, and many of them were given up due to bad turnovers, poor marking and an inability to simply clear the ball from the 18-yard box. It’s not unusual for the Revs to resemble a youth rec league team when tasked with booting the ball away in dangerous situations.
It is worth noting that statistics show they are underperforming defensively. According to American Soccer Analysis (which does not show their most recent game against NYC yet), their Expected Goals Against is 30.16, eight goals less than their goals against prior to 8/15. That number puts them above teams like Seattle, NYRB, Montreal and Atlanta, even though their 38 GA is worse than all of those clubs.
That is partly a product of bad luck, but by this late point in the season and knowing New England’s situation from the eye test, it is also a product of the Revs’ propensity to consistently allow bad low-percentage goals.
Goalkeepers Cody Cropper and Brad Knighton have often struggled, and instability at the top of the formation (where rotation is common, often resulting in mismatched players) has made deep distribution difficult, which increases costly turnovers and makes it harder to avoid getting trapped in their defensive half. Team tactics have been generally poor, so individual performances and the failures of Angoua and the left back position should not be completely blamed.
Heaps, it’s safe to say, sits on a very hot seat.
The front office took a shot at turning around their fortunes this summer with the signing of French center back Claude Dielna, who looked promising against NYCFC despite almost gifting David Villa a breakaway with a lazy back-pass, which likely acclimated him very quickly with his teammates. His presence was offset by Heaps’ mystifying decision to start Angoua out of position at right back and move Farrell out of position to left back. There is no reasonable explanation for this.
For all the weird things they’ve done with the backline, nothing comes close to the baffling state of the attack. Kei Kamara, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury, Diego Fagundez, and Lee Nguyen are all talented players who are very capable of succeeding as starting players in this league, but almost all have been played out of position this year, and it’s become a weekly guessing game as to what crazy combination Heaps will put on the field next.
Sometimes, they roll with a 4-4-2 diamond, aimed at putting as many of them out there as possible. Other times, it’s a 4-2-3-1, or some version of a 4-3-3. At Yankee Stadium, it was a 4-1-4-1. Consistency is not a feature of their results in part because consistency is not taken into consideration when lineups are drawn up.
Kamara usually starts, either next to a striker (recently Bunbury has received more game time, and Agudelo is another option) or a creator, either Nguyen or Rowe. We’ve seen Nguyen and Rowe as duel creators, or Rowe on the wing and Nguyen as a second forward, or even Nguyen on the wing and Agudelo playing behind the strikers. There is no cohesion and no chemistry because players are constantly played outside of their best position, and even when they are, the surrounding players do not compliment them well.
Crossing and open-field hold-up opportunities are not given to Kamara, who scores less because of it. Nguyen likes short-range combination play, which he can’t do with Kamara and the 4-4-2 diamond does not welcome anyway. Rowe, a super-talented player underrated by everyone who has managed him, is often played at left back, which is ridiculous. Fagundez somehow can’t find a role with this team. Agudelo is a lone forward who can not reasonably be on the field at the same time as Kamara.
There are A LOT of square pegs in round holes here, and while the players are talented enough to scrape out goals despite the baffling roster composition and peculiar managerial decisions, inconsistency is a natural result, as is their place in the standings.
A revamp is necessary. A reasonable goal of the summer trade window would have been to work the phones as much as possible for players like Kamara, Nguyen and Bunbury, and try to figure out the long-term future of the attack. In some ways, they have an enviable problem, with so many high-value tradeable players at their disposal. Thinking of potential partners and even potential deals (Josh Yaro and a lot of TAM for Nguyen, as an example) is not hard.
What did the front office do? They further confused the MLS world and not only kept all of their mismatched attackers, but added another one, for a lot of money. Former Sporting KC winger Krisztian Nemeth, who played in Qatar for a year and a half after leaving Kansas City following an 10-goal campaign with SKC, signed with the Revs on deadline day.
New England had to send Columbus $400,000 in allocation money ($200,000 in GAM and $200,000 in TAM, both in 2018) plus an international roster slot for the rights to sign Nemeth. The Revs then signed Nemeth with Targeted Allocation Money. This was a complicated and confusing transaction, but the gist of it is that New England spent a lot of cash on an attacker that does not fit.
How Heaps will fit the Hungarian into the lineup has yet to be seen. Nemeth may necessitate a spot on the wing in a three-up-top formation, where he played with Sporting, which would likely mean a 4-3-3. That could remove Nguyen from the starting lineup entirely, place Agudelo either on the bench or out of position, and force Rowe to consistently play outside of the No. 10 spot.
This is a roster that was not compiled with a direction in mind, and a front office that apparently has no clue what to do about fixing it. We shouldn’t forget that they did not sign a left back, goalkeeper is still a problem position (they are one of only two MLS clubs with that issue), and they have nobody to play center back if Dielna or Delemea is hurt or suspended.
Thus, they continue to languish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference despite an objectively capable starting XI and a huge squadron of talented goal-scorers and creators. They’re the weirdest team in the league, and they’ve done little to convince us otherwise in the past month.